The new film adaptation of Emma that’s now in theaters is the most satirical of all the recent Jane Austen adaptations, as Vox’s film critic Alissa Wilkinson (two master’s degrees, wise) explained in her review. So now I (zero master’s degrees, shallow) will let you in on another superlative about the new Emma: It’s also the sexiest screen adaptation of the novel on record. And it’s sexy in a distinctly Austenian way.
I don’t just mean that you can see bare butts in this movie (although you can, and the first one shows up less than 10 minutes in). I mean that this Emma, directed by photographer Autumn de Wilde, has a fully developed system for thinking about sex, constraint from sex, and what both mean to Emma. That system is absolutely grounded in Jane Austen’s novel — but in de Wilde’s version, it has a new cinematic language.
Emma is one of those marriage plots where the two lovers have complementary flaws. Structurally, the only way for them to fix each other is to have sex.
Emma concerns a young woman named Emma Woodhouse, who rejoices in the rarest and most fortunate of conditions: She is, Austen tells us, “handsome, clever, and rich.” Emma is a delightful snob, and she spends most of her time managing her relationships with her neighbors, who tend to regard her with the near-worship Emma considers her due.
Because she is so conscious of her elevated station in life, Emma is often affected and occasionally cruel. She is constantly playing the part of the queen of her little village, because she enjoys it and she knows it’s expected of her, but only rarely is she able to relax enough to be herself.
In the novel, Austen shows us this interior distance with free indirect discourse, the literary technique she pioneered in Emma. In free indirect discourse, the narrator shows us a character’s thoughts without quite putting us into their head: We read the words of Emma’s interior monologue, but we have just enough distance to see that this monologue is both ridiculous and self-conscious.
“The hair was curled, and the maid sent away, and Emma sat down to think and be miserable,” writes Austen after one of Emma’s matchmaking plans has come to naught. “It was a wretched business indeed! — Such an overthrow of every thing she had been wishing for! — Such a development of every thing most unwelcome!”
Emma performs her own misery even when no one else is around her, because she knows she has all the attributes of a heroine and so she lives her life as the person at the center of a show. And because she is performing misery, she thinks in overdramatic exclamation points. Even in the privacy of her own mind, Emma can never quite get away from the sense that she is putting on a show.
The only times that Emma seems to lose that sense are when she’s around Mr. Knightley, who is her closest neighbor and whose brother is married to Emma’s sister. Knightley is a solitary soul, unlike Emma, who is the heart of her village’s social scene, but they have an easy and bantering rapport: “We always say what we like to one another,” Emma remarks. And although they grew up together, they are not, Emma says archly at a ball, “so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper” for them to dance together.
Knightley and Emma have mirrored faults, which they must correct over the course of the novel. Emma is fully integrated into her community, but she must learn how to connect with her authentic self and form relationships with her neighbors based on her humanity, rather than on her own self-regard. And while Knightley knows exactly who he is and never plays a part, he must learn not to isolate himself in his own arrogance.
The problem can only be solved when Emma and Knightley come together. Essentially, they need to have sex to make each other better people.
In Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, to find your authentic self, you have to take off your many layers of clothes
In Emma the novel, Austen dramatizes Emma’s faults and the idea that Knightley is the solution to them through free indirect discourse, but that’s a literary technique that only works on the page.
So to replace it, de Wilde builds a world in which Emma is constantly enveloped by layers upon layers of Regency civilization: clothes and furniture and rhetoric, all conspiring to keep her from her truest self. They become the equivalent of Austen’s narrator, creating distance between Emma and herself.
Emma is constantly surrounded by furniture-toting servants, rushing to reposition a parade of fire screens at the urging of Emma’s father. Her clothes are extravagantly flowing and layered. Pointedly, we first meet her in a greenhouse, indicating with gloved hands which flowers a servant should pick for a bouquet.
It’s only in moments of solitude and vulnerability that Emma can, furtively, strip convention away: raising her skirts to warm her backside by a fire, doffing her slippers after coming home from a ball at dawn.
Meanwhile, Knightley knows exactly who he is. Pointedly, we first meet him outside, striding through his lands, getting his boots dirty on the wet ground. Then he goes inside and strips off all his clothes, layer by layer by layer.
In de Wilde’s version of the story, authenticity means stripping away layers of convention, which means stripping away the clothes. Authenticity is nakedness, which onscreen means that it is sex.
Meanwhile, Emma is society. She is artifice and restraint — and she is community, because she is surrounded by people she cares about, and who care for her.
Knightley is nature. He is authenticity and honesty. And he is solitude, because he is alone even when he does not want to be.
Unlike Emma’s bustling house, Knightley’s house is echoing and empty, with dust cloths draped over the furniture. It’s no wonder that Knightley is constantly leaving it to go over to Emma’s house and hang out with her — by foot, because he enjoys walking, although Emma despairs at him and tells him a man of his station should really drive a coach.
What’s keeping Emma and Knightley from each other are the layers and layers of sheer stuff between them. So for de Wilde’s metaphor to work, those layers all have to be stripped away, which is where things start to get sexy.
First, the clothes start to go: When Emma and Knightley share a dance, Emma, who is usually gloved, goes bare-handed. Afterward, she goes back home, takes off her shoes, and props up her stockinged feet on the windowsill as she stares out at Knightley in the courtyard.
Then it’s the furniture. When Knightley first professes his love to Emma, it’s not in a drawing room but under a lushly blooming tree. Emma promptly responds by getting a nosebleed in a winking symbolic deflowering.
But all these encounters are putting the burden of change on Emma. She’s moving into Knightley’s territory, away from the social world of artifice and community where she’s comfortable and into the vulnerability and bareness of nature. So in the end, it’s Knightley who moves into Emma’s territory for the final proposal scene. He makes his way into her drawing room and hides with her behind a fireplace screen in an isolated nest, while on the other side of the screen Emma’s father calls for the servants to protect him from a draft.
“How can I ever leave him?” Emma asks Knightley of her father, and he responds by telling her he’ll leave his house — his ancestral seat, the only house in the village that’s nicer than Emma’s — and live with her for as long as her father is alive.
And at last, the union between society and nature, artifice and honesty, and community and solitude is complete. Artifice and judgment are gone. And it took symbolic Regency clothing sex to get us there.